First, this reality: I'm not a Monday Morning Quarterback. I subscribe to the John Madden philosophy that you can't second-guess a coach's, manager's or player's decision on the playing field, after the fact. But if you question it, as it's happening, then you deserve to be heard. So hear me out on this one.
The 49ers were leading Dallas this afternoon 21-14, when David Akers kicked a 55-yard field goal with 11 minutes remaining in the game. The Niners had a 10-point lead. However, the Cowboys' Keith Brooking was flagged for "leverage," which would have given the Niners a first down at the Dallas 22, if Jim Harbaugh were willing to forsake the field goal, in exchange for the first down. In my mind, it was a no-brainer: Accept the penalty, go for the touchdown (and a 14-point lead), while also eating up the clock. If you can't get the TD, then kick the field goal (again), and you'll have the 10-point lead you would have had earlier anyway, but with less time remaining for Dallas to score twice. Yes, it was something of a risk. What if Alex Smith threw an interception, or fumbled the ball away on a sack? I suppose that's why Harbaugh took the 55-yard field goal and a 10-point lead.
But what message did that send to his offense? It told the offense that the head coach had little faith in its ability to get the job done with the game on the line.
To reiterate: WIth a first down at the Dallas 22, one of the following would eventually happen:
1. The 49ers would score a touchdown, while eating up time on the clock.
2. The 49ers would settle for a field goal, while eating up time on the clock.
3. The 49ers would fail to score.
If you, as a head coach, have any faith in your offense, you will assume that you'll come away with either a TD or a field goal, in which case you'll be better off than you would have been by declining the penalty, and taking the original 55-yard field goal, because you'll be ahead by 14 instead of 10, or you'll be ahead by 10, either way with less time remaining on the clock.
Vernon Davis said that he was surprised Harbaugh took the field goal, and declined the penalty. He wasn't the only one. On the Fox telecast, former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick started explaining why Harbaugh was going to take the penalty, rather than the automatic three points. But he had to stop, because Harbaugh took the points instead. And I suspect many other 49er players were surprised as well. And disappointed.
In fact, though, Harbaugh would demonstrate another case (albeit less controversial) of a lack of faith in his offense early in the overtime, not to mention very questionable judgement. The Niners won the coin toss and picked up a quick first down at their own 32. Frank Gore then ran up the middle for seven yards, giving them a second-and-three. Now, what would you do with a second-and-three at your own 39 in overtime? I would run the ball on second down, and possibly on third, if necessary, to gain the three yards. Get the first down, and you're about 20 yards away from a potential game-winning field goal attempt.
But Harbaugh called for a pass, and Smith was sacked. Now it's third-and-11. Smith then hit Ted Ginn Jr for 10, creating a fourth-and-one, at their own 41. What did Harbaugh then do? He brought on his punting team. Now, don't get me wrong. I think, in some cases, when your defense is dominating, when you're winning the battle on the line of scrimmage, you're completely right in punting the ball from your own 41, on fourth-and-one. But the Niners defense was sagging, having already given up 400 yards of Dallas offense. Put another way, if you're a 49ers fan, and you were watching the game at that point, did you really think the Niners D could stop Tony Romo, once you punted the ball away? I didn't think so.
As it turned out, the 10-yard pass to Ginn was reversed, because replays showed he didn't have possession. So it became fourth-and-11, and a moot point. And, of course, Romo threw a 77-yard pass over the middle to set up the game-winning 19-yard field goal on the very next play. Game over.
After an extremely conservative offensive showing in the 49ers' season-opening win over Seattle, I totally expected Harbaugh to open things up against Dallas. But he really didn't. Gore averaged just 2.4 yards per carry, and is under three yards per, for the season. Smith passed for 179 yards, but when one includes the six times he was sacked, the Niners' totaled just 132 yards of passing. Overall, they barely topped 200 yards of offense for the game, as they also did against Seattle. By contrast, Dallas totaled 472 yards. Again, did you really think the Niners defense was going to stop Romo, once the Cowboys got the ball back in overtime? Of course not.
When we all thought it was fourth-and-one, I wanted Harbaugh to go for it. If it failed, and the Niners lost, I would not have second-guessed him in the slightest.
For this fan, his conservative approach is very disappointing. I'd rather see him take risks, even if it means losing. Today, I think his failure to take the necessary risk, early in the fourth quarter, helped cost his team the game.
Is this the same daring, creative and imaginative Jim Harbaugh, who coached Stanford to a 12-1 record, and a number-four national ranking last season? Yes, of course it is. I think Harbaugh just doesn't have enough faith in this 49er offense to use any goodies in his bag of tricks. How unfortunate.